Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Extracting System & Setting

 If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.”

Katharine Hepburn

For most roleplaying games the mechanics and setting remain bound together. Extracting one from the other often proves challenging from a game design standpoint and dubious from a marketing perspective. Few game systems exist entirely apart from any given setting, though they claim (with different levels of efficacy) to operate with any genre. Over the years various games have released as standalone rules sets – Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS, Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying (BRP), Hero Games’ Hero System, S. John Ross’ RISUS: The Anything RPG, even West End Games’ popular D6 System – with varying degrees of success. Some emerged from existing games, like D6 from the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and BRP from favorites like Call of Cthulhu. These find some success among pockets of gamers willing to do the legwork to adapt them to their original settings (though some, like RISUS, make this quite easy). Yet few products have made their mark as settings extracted from or produced without rules systems. Such oddities require a delicate touch, a very generic approach to anything smacking of rules, and finesse in inspiring gamers to undertake the work adapting them to a favorite game system.

I’ve discussed rules and settings before, though in the context of attracting kids to roleplaying games. In many cases newcomers seem more attracted to an engaging setting than a particular set of game mechanics. For instance, over the years my son has wanted to dabble in roleplaying games about Star Wars, Pokemon, and magical cats, all of which have, however briefly, engaged his interest to some degree. (Who am I kidding? His love for Star Wars and cats isn’t going away anytime soon.) Initially he didn’t care about the nuts and bolts of how to play the game, whether they used polyhedral dice or six siders, how much experience he needed to level up. He wanted to play around in his preferred imaginary universes. Yet the roleplaying game experience includes both setting elements and game mechanics.

Standalone roleplaying game rules often have a hard sell, as they tout game mechanics apart from any tempting setting content. They’re really more attuned to experienced roleplaying gamers seeking a particular style of rules around which they can build their own game world. In some cases rules emerge from existing games, such as BRP from Call of Cthulhu, the Hero System from Champions, or the D6 System from the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Other games stand on their own – like RISUS and GURPS – and either leave setting materials to gamemasters (like the former) or produce setting supplements gamers can plug into the system (like the latter). (One could, of course, argue GURPS evolved from Melee and Wizard, but the significant development of the generic game and lack of setting-specific versions places it, in my mind, in the realm of truly independent generic rules.) Of these GURPS stands as perhaps the most successful of the generic systems mainly for its strong support of setting books; many of these serve on their own as genre guides for those of us looking to adapt them to other game rules.

While extracting a system from a game or producing purely generic rules has seen some success over the years, setting materials without ties to specific game rules remain rare. I’ve seen few efforts to produce “system-neutral” or “system-agnostic” setting source material and even adventures existing on their own apart from any game system.

Several come to mind (limited by my own perspective, so by no means a comprehensive list); of these, only a few exist without specific game system information. Flying Buffalo’s Citybook series presents locations and those who inhabit them, enhanced with plenty of illustrations and maps. Each character listed includes some brief stat-like description, including race, height, weight, age, and fighting prowess and magical ability; “GM Guidelines” at the front of each book outline these last two. But overall every gamemaster can tailor each character and situations arising in the locations to their preferred game system. Flying Buffalo’s Grimtooth’s Traps series also serves up useful dungeon dangers without the added stats for specific game engines. Although each devious trap comes with diagrams and plenty of notes on how it works and how characters might avoid it, the text leaves the in-game aspects of damage and avoidance up to gamemasters.

I’ll give an “honorable mention” here to Chaosium’s magnificent fiction-tie-in setting Thieves’ World boxed set (which I’ve praised before). Of its three sourcebooks and numerous maps, only one book focuses on providing stats for Sanctuary’s notable personalities for numerous roleplaying game systems of the time, an amazing feat of cooperation given the litigious attitudes of game publishers in that early Golden Age of Roleplaying.

When I started publishing my own roleplaying game setting sourcebooks and adventures – primarily for Pulp Egypt and Heroesof Rura-Tonga – I decided to avoid tying them to one game system and released them as “system-neutral” works. I devised the Any-System Key as a means to help gamemasters adapt characters to their favorite skill-based rules, with a few notes about various difficulties different tasks might present. I later crafted a similar descriptive framework for my Any-OSR Key to tie some of my work (like The Greydeep Marches setting) to class-and-level based fantasy roleplaying game systems. These proved slightly more detailed versions of the “GM Guidelines” in the Citybooks, but still not tied to a specific set of rules.

Taking the setting out of rules seems manageable, especially when followed by setting-specific materials. But taking rules out of setting resources – like adventures and sourcebooks – proves more difficult, even with some frame of reference to help gamemasters port the settings to their favored rules. The Citybook and Grimtooth’s Traps series both found popularity across a wide audience of roleplaying gamers, but such success seems impossible in this current age with crowds of creators churning out content – system-neutral and system-specific – and gamer loyalty to various styles of rules and particular game brands. Adapting system-neutral material to one’s favorite game system takes a degree of additional work for which few gamemasters have the time and energy. Despite these challenges system-neutral setting materials present I prefer to write source material rather than chaining my creations to a to a specific, existing rules set. I focus more on story elements than game mechanics...and system-neutral material gives me that freedom.

The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

Gary Gygax

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